Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
After my deal to obtain Floating Bear #24 fell through a month or so ago, Floating Bears have been much on my mind. I broke down and bought a run of 31 of these fragile mimeos from William Reese Company. This bookstore is proof positive of the value and importance of the true bookman. I received three catalogs along with my purchase including a two volume catalog of 20th Century periodicals. These are worth their weight in gold. (See my previous article on book catalogues.) These catalogs grew out of the Robert Wendler collection to which William Reese added over the years. Close to 2000 different periodicals were available for sale beginning in 2003. Yugen, Floating Bear, Fuck You, Kulchur, Insect Trust Gazette, Marijuana Newsletter. Even a few copies of the elusive Sinking Bear. Most of the magazines I have written about were available not to mention large runs of important and rare Modernist littles (Broom, Blast, Little Review, Others, The Dial, The Exile et al) as well as magazines of social protest from the 1930s and 1940s, such as The New Masses, that link the little magazine traditions of High Modernism with the little magazine revolution detailed in Secret Location on the Lower East Side. The catalogs serve as a valuable bibliography of the history and importance of the periodical in 20th Century literature. William Reese Company is well known as an expert on Americana (Reese’s performance at the Frank Siebert Sale in 1999 established him as the bookman of his generation), but you can be sure that he and his associates will treat with meticulous care and scrupulous detail all aspects of printing and literary history they come in contact with.
I was very happy with the Floating Bears I received. As usual, the magazines had seen better days. In most cases, they were folded for mailing with stamps and address labels. Many copies were stained or poorly mimeo’d, but that is a large part of the charm of Floating Bear. You can see that these magazines were used. They were argued over, read aloud, passed around. As I mentioned before, Floating Bear could not be bought over the counter and was distributed through a mailing list. Receiving a copy meant you were part of a literary and artistic community. This is proven by the address labels on my copies. Many of my issues were sent to Eila Kokkinen, an art critic of the time. Kokkinen served on the editorial board of The Chicago Review when that publication introduced William Burroughs to the American public. Along with Irving Rosenthal and Paul Carroll, she resigned the board to protest the suppression of the Winter Issue. The Winter Issue evetually became Big Table 1. She was good friends with Rosenthal who helped edit Naked Lunch for Grove Press. Rosenthal wrote a now forgotten novel of the 1960s entitled Sheeper that I have yet to read.
A couple of my other issues were mailed to Dan Rice. Rice was a student at Black Mountain College. He studied there during Charles Olson’s tenure as Rector. Rice was a fixture in the New York Art scene and active in the Cedar Bar circle. That Rice received Floating Bear highlights the magazine’s merging of Black Mountain, New York art and dance circles, and the Beat Generation. It is a very nice association. Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology began the process of canonization for these schools in 1960.
I also have an issue that was sent to Frank Davey. Davey is a Canadian poet and writer who helped start the influential literary magazines Tish and Open Letter. Tish evolved out of the excitement and interest generated by the Vancouver Poetry Conferences of the early 1960s. Vancouver was one of many hotspots in North America tuned in to the birth and spread of the new poetry. Robert Duncan suggested the creation of a magazine called Shit and Tish was the compromised result. Tish and Open Letter present the British Columbia poetry scene that was galvanized by the new writing of Olson, Duncan, Jack Spicer and others.
Another issue was sent to Corinth Books. Yet another was sent to Bill Wilentz. This highlights the link between the little magazine, the small press, and the independent bookshop. Eli and Ted Wilentz ran Eighth Street Bookshop, a haven for writers and artists in New York City. I don’t know if Bill Wilentz is related in any way, but I can not help but think there is a connection to the Wilentz Brothers. The importance of the independent bookshop to the development of a literary community cannot be overstated. City Lights in San Francisco, Peace Eye Books in the Lower East Side, The English Bookshop in Paris, Better Books and Indica in London, Asphodel Bookshop in Cleveland. There must be countless others. These stores provided a meeting place for the literary community as well as an outlet for selling new writing. As my checks from the Phoenix Bookshop prove, these stores provided artists and writers with cash. In many cases, these bookstores acted as publishers themselves. The Wilentz Brothers founded Corinth Books in 1959. Corinth Books published Leroi Jones, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Diane Di Prima, and a host of others. Corinth teamed up with other small publishers like Totem (Leroi Jones’s press) and Jargon (Jonathan Williams). Jones and Di Prima were intimately involved with the Wilentz’s publishing efforts. Naturally, Corinth received a copy of the Bear.
In this cache of Floating Bears, I finally got a hold of issue 24. According to the William Reese catalog, the legend of its rarity may be anecdotal. Yet my experience suggests there is a lot of truth to the myth. Issue 24 definitely has a different feel to it. The paper is thinner; the mimeo job is as poor as Diane Di Prima states. Looking at all the issues together, it stands out.
This is also true of the issues beginning with Number 26. Leroi Jones left as editor with Issue 25, and Diane Di Prima took over full editorial duties. Issue 27 has a cover page like the title page of a book. By Issue 28, there are pictorial covers by a host of important artists like George Herms, Jess, and Wallace Berman. You can see the geographical shift from New York to California as well. Herms, Jess, and Berman were all active in the California art scene that moved between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Billy Linich otherwise known as Billy Name, the man who made Warhol’s Factory silver, assists with a few issues after Jones’s departure. This suggests Floating Bear‘s links to the speed culture of the New York art scene in the 1960s.
Floating Bear is very hard to scan or at least I find it so. I did the best I could. For the most part, the images give a sense of the feel and appearance of the magazine. In any case, they allow the curious viewer to track the changes to Floating Bear in close to 40 issues and over nearly a decade of publishing.